Jan. 21 update on COVID-19 in MN: Death toll tops 6K; no post-holiday case surge

A sign for COVID-19 testing on a snowy sidewalk.
A person walks into a COVID-19 saliva testing site at the former Thomas Edison Elementary School in Moorhead, Minn., on on Dec. 29, 2020.
Matt Mikus | MPR News 2020

Updated: 3:33 p.m.

Minnesota appears to have dodged a major post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases that officials had feared was coming, the state’s health commissioner said Thursday.

“While we could still see an increase in cases as a result of the New Year's holiday in particular, the evidence does suggest that we may have already seen our post-holiday spike, that thankfully it was a modest and manageable one,” Jan Malcolm told reporters.

It was a chunk of hopeful news in an otherwise mixed day for COVID-19 data. The Health Department reported the count of intensive care patients had fallen below 100 for the first time in four months. But the agency also confirmed Minnesota had passed 6,000 deaths in the pandemic.

Thirty-two reported deaths raised Minnesota’s toll to 6,011. Among those who’ve died, about 64 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

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New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

The 1,292 newly confirmed or probable cases posted Thursday put Minnesota at 450,762 confirmed cases in the pandemic. Of those, about 96 percent of people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Cases spread across age groups, regions

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 85,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 45,000 among people ages 20 to 24.

New Minnesota COVID-19 cases by age, adjusted for population

The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with nearly 35,000 total cases among those ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

Although less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to older relatives and members of other vulnerable populations.

It’s of particular concern because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.

Caseloads continue to trend down across all regions of the state following a late December, early January blip.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

Hot spots continue to pop up in rural counties relative to their population.

MN counties with the fastest per-capita growth in COVID-19 cases

Caseloads still heaviest among people of color

In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s been especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent for much of the pandemic.

New COVID-19 cases per capita by race

Even as new case counts ease from their late November, early December peaks, the data shows people of color continue to be hit hardest.

Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, officials say, especially among unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.

Similar trends have been seen among Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.

Vaccination frustrations boil

Even as the overall pandemic numbers continue to improve, Minnesota officials face a new difficult challenge to get Minnesotans inoculated as quickly as possible.

There is far more demand for vaccine than supply and the state is struggling to gain traction in its efforts to get shots into arms.

About 12,000 doses — roughly 20 percent of Minnesota’s current weekly allocation — are being distributed to nine sites around the state, part of a pilot program intended to speed vaccinations to people 65 and older as well as to educators and child care workers.

But the online booking process that launched at noon Tuesday quickly became overwhelmed, getting more than 1 million hits by early afternoon.

The first-day problems created serious frustration for many. Stories of unhappy seniors trying but failing to secure an appointment online or by phone bubbled across social media.

Graph of new ICU and non-ICU COVID-19 hospitalizations

Officials said later the state anticipates providing first-dose shots to all 12,000 people — 6,000 seniors and 6,000 educators and child care providers — who have appointments at pilot clinics this weekend.

As of Monday, Minnesota has administered first doses to more than 200,000 people across the state, and 41,984 have received their second dose, according to the state's dashboard.

That’s from about 610,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine that have been shipped to Minnesota so far, including the federal program for long-term care facility vaccinations.

Officials are tempering optimism about supplies increasing under the Biden administration with caution that the needed volume is not here yet.

“Vaccine demand is certain to outpace available doses at this time” so Minnesotans will need to be patient, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Tuesday. “We do not have enough vaccine for everyone who wants one, but we’re working hard to build a community vaccination system” to respond once the federal government delivers more.

State wants students, youth athletes tested for COVID

Minnesota health officials on Thursday called for expanded COVID-19 testing, urging K-12 and college students returning to campus, along with kids playing youth sports and anyone else “who regularly interacts with people outside of their family unit or household” be tested.

The move expands the number of people the state says should get a test.

While everyone returning to school should get tested, it’s especially important for people ages 12 to 25 because they’re so active, said Dan Huff, a Minnesota Health Department assistant commissioner.

Getting tested should be a “family affair,” he added, noting (not incorrectly) that “most children do like to spit.”

Latest developments

Morgue site won’t be used to store vaccine

The cold-storage facility Minnesota purchased for use as a possible COVID-19 morgue won’t be used to hold vaccine, a top state official said Thursday.

Doses shipped to the state go directly to medical sites for use as fast as possible, and putting them in a warehouse would run counter to that purpose, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter told the Senate Finance Committee.

The facility in St. Paul was retrofitted to house human remains if funeral homes were overwhelmed by coronavirus deaths. Schowalter says it hasn’t come to that, although some extra protective equipment has landed there.

“It was being used to hold some other items,” Schowalter said. “We’re happy it is not holding bodies. That is the entire purpose of our effort to make sure that cold-storage facility is not holding dead people. And we’re happy for it.”

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, agreed that it would be a mistake to use it for vaccine holding. It lacks the proper equipment to keep the vaccine at ultra-cold temperatures, so that would require expensive upgrades.

“That would be an investment — I don’t think a wise investment — based on how fast we need to get vaccine out,” she said. “I don’t think the building is appropriate to be used for vaccine and I hope that we can quell that now.”

Minnesota paid about $7 million for the facility, with about $4 million of that reimbursed by the federal government. Throughout the pandemic, some cities and states have had to resort to refrigerator trucks to hold remains because their traditional morgues ran out of space; Gov. Tim Walz said he wanted to make sure remains were dealt with in a dignified manner.

Some Republican lawmakers have suggested selling the building. 

“I understand if it would have gotten to the point where we needed something like that it would be considered pretty good planning,” said Sen. Bill Ingebritsen, R-Alexandria. “However, if it has not been used or if it is sitting and being utilized for something else, we need to know that.”

If the state does that, it likely would have to repay some money to the federal government.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

Why some providers in Minnesota are getting vaccinated and some aren’t: As the state expands who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, some health care providers say they still don’t know how and when they will get theirs. Demographics, vaccine supply and inconsistent rules are adding to the confusion. 

Thousands of vaccine slots for older Minnesotans fill quickly, demand swamps phone lines, website: After weeks of vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, the state of Minnesota has opened up vaccinations to anyone 65 and older to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But the rollout, billed as a pilot, was almost too popular.

Minnesota is expanding its COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Here's what you need to know: As of noon Tuesday, people age 65 and older, along with some teachers and child care providers, can start signing up to get their COVID-19 vaccines. But the state is warning that the number of doses available will continue to be very limited — at least for now.

Republicans try to change laws to curtail Walz powers: Republicans in the Minnesota Senate are turning to legislative remedies to try to curtail the emergency powers Gov. Tim Walz has been using to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.